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The Series Project: The Pink Panther (Part 3)

Professor Witney Seibold closes out the Pink Panther franchises with Robert Benigni and the shockingly good Steve Martin movies.

Pink Panther 3 splash

Fire up the boombox

As I have openly indicated and re-indicated over the last two weeks of The Series Project – wherein I've been covering all eleven films in the long-running Pink Panther series – the Pink Panther movies exist in a constant state of reboot. Almost every single chapter in this long-running series feels like an attempt by the filmmakers to start fresh with the first chapter in a whole new series. One may be able to admire the ingenuity of this approach – some long-running film series could benefit from a constant introduction of new ideas rather than the tired rehashing of old tropes – but The Pink Panther movies have never settled down long enough to really establish too many old tropes. Oddly enough, it won't be until we reach the final film in the series (which is a sequel to a reboot, no less) that the notion of an actual workable sequel-able notion will be introduced. Yes, dear readers, you'll actually find me in support of a remake. To The Pink Panther. Trust me, I was just as shocked as you were.

To recap: Last week, we left off with the fairly hideous 1983 Pink Panther effort, Curse of the Pink Panther, which, in true series fashion, tried to introduce a new lead character in the form of Clifton Sleigh (Ted Wass), the bumbling American detective that was intended to replace the missing Inspector Jacques Clouseau (the already dead Peter Sellers). Clifton, as I said, was something of a non-presence, and series creator/director Blake Edwards was clearly whipping his dead horse until nearly nothing was left. Curse of the Pink Panther was an immediate follow-up to the truly insulting Trail of the Pink Panther, made with postmortem footage of Peter Sellers left over from a previous chapter. Trail was so bad and so outwardly tasteless that Sellers' widow sued the production company… and won.

After this one-two-punch of awful and critically panned Pink Panther films, it seemed like the series was at an end, and Edwards had hung up his effort on the matter for good. After 1983, Edwards moved into other semi-notable and well-constructed comedies like Blind Date, the body-swap comedy Switch, and the alcoholism/womanizing comedy Skin Deep, which I haven't seen for a while, but recall being quite good. So it seemed like Edwards had wisely moved on. But I have been using The Pink Panther movies as sort of a microcosm of the evolution of slapstick (first it was erudite, jetset slapstick. Then it was parody of slapstick, etc.). The late 1980s saw a new step in evolution. ZAZ happened.

The Naked Gun

In 1980, the writing/directing team of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker made the legitimate slapstick classic Airplane!, which is still beloved and often quoted by its fans to this very day. They followed that film with the short-lived cult 1982 TV show “Police Squad!,” and the awesomely funny 1984 feature Top Secret!. This neo-slapstick revolution reintroduced an earnest cartoon sensibility into slapstick that hadn't been seen since, gosh, the 1940s. I feel like slapstick films (like the Pink Panthers and especially the '70s films of Woody Allen) were intended to be a parody of slapstick; like we were supposed to be laughing at the fact that slapstick is being used, and not at the slapstick itself. What ZAZ did was make slapstick (if this is the right word) earnest again. It was a refreshing way to be legitimately silly. In 1988, the ZAZ team made a hit film based on “Police Squad!” called The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!. It was followed by a modest but notable wave of other spoofy neo-slapstick movies that stretched into the early 1990s including two sequels, and titles like Hot Shots!, the Marx Bros. pastiche Brain Donors (a.k.a. Lame Ducks), National Lampoon's effort National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1, Mel Brooks' Spaceballs as well as his Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Who's Harry Crumb?, Repossessed, the Jim Carrey vehicle Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and, to a lesser extent Home Alone.

So slapstick was back, and Blake Edwards noticed. In 1993 – ten years after the last Pink Panther movie was made – Edwards decided to recapture the glory in this new comedy climate. It was high time for yet another proper reboot of the series. It would actually prove to be the last theatrical feature he would direct.

Son of the Pink Panther (dir. Blake Edwards, 1993)

Pink Panther 9 poster

The conceit, as the title would imply, is that Jacques Clouseau, at some point along the line, fathered a son who, as it would appropriately turn out, was just as bumbling as he. Who is the mother? Why Maria Gambrelli (Claudia Cardinale), whom we haven't seen since the original Pink Panther in 1963. Even though Clouseau and Maria never really met in the original Pink Panther, evidently they began carrying on a hot off-screen romance shortly thereafter. Maria became pregnant, and Clouseau perhaps went on to carry on his affair with Elke Sommer in 1964's A Shot in the Dark.

Maria went on to raise Clouseau's son, also named Jacques, keeping him a secret from Clouseau, and never telling him who his father is. Jacques Jr. is being raised with the last name Gambrelli. Maria, if you'll recall, was the princess of the country of Lugash, and the original owner of the eponymous Pink Panther diamond. How she went from being a princess to a struggling single mom in the south of France is not revealed. Perhaps she was deposed. This is important to consider, as the central female lead in Son of the Pink Panther is the new princess of Lugash, Yasmin (Debrah Farentino). Given Yasmine's age, it's possible that Maria mothered her, leaving her to be the next princess. That Jacques Gambrelli and Yasmine begin carrying on a sexual relationship over the course of the film may give you a twinge of possible half-brother, half-sister incest. But that's as may be.

Pink Panther 9 babe

Jacques Gambrelli is played by the Italian comedy superstar Roberto Benigni, who achieved some success in the states in the early '90s with a notable role in Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth, and his own amazingly funny mistaken-identity film Johnny Stecchino, which was an enormous arthouse hit right on the middle of the '90s Indie Boom. Benigni, then, was not an unknown quantity in 1993, and had indeed been compared by some critics to a modern day Chaplin. He is indeed a stellar comic talent, so casting him in a Pink Panther movie – again, intended to be the first chapter in a new series to feature his character – seemed like a brilliant move.

Well, at least on paper. The actual slapstick in Son of the Pink Panther is pretty good, but the film overall was only met with a warm critical response, and was a box office flop. I can say for sure that while there are a few giggle-worthy moments, it's a pretty flat movie. Some of the Edwards charm is back, and Benigni is in fine form, but the film never achieves the sophisticated fun of the original, nor does it have the same broad slapstick highs as Return of the Pink Panther. It was certainly a step in the right direction, however; I'd rather watch this film several more times than suffer through Trail or Curse again.

So Jacques Gambrelli is a small-town cop in the south of France where his lives with his mother Maria. He is a second-class cop, and often falls down. He often springs to his feet yelling “That felt good!” Gambrelli doesn't speak English too well, so a lot is made of his funny Italian accent, although he seems to have inherited his father's propensity for over-Frenching certain words; he says words like “beump” for “bump” and “liew” for “law.” Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom still, what a trooper), who is still a cop, and must be elated that Clouseau is actually and finally dead (not much is made of his murderous psychosis in this movie) identifies Gambrelli as Clouseau's for his clumsiness and his French wording. Dreyfus, however, also finds himself attracted to Claudia Cardinale (as all people do at some point), making for an awkward romance – can he date the woman who once slept with his arch-nemesis, and whose son has the same habit of creating clumsy havoc wherever he goes?

Pink Panther 9 Dreyfus

Herbert Lom, by the way, appeared in more Pink Panther films than any other actor. He has been a master of slow burn, and a hilarious psychotic throughout. Lom died this past September at the age of 95. He was always a pleasure. Son of the Pink Panther was his final feature film as well.

The plot of the film is actually a little more complex than any of the previous films, although it's still pretty trim. A group of bad guys, led by Robert Davi and enforced by the appealingly butch Jennifer Edwards, plot to kidnap the princess of Lugash and hold her for ransom. Gambrelli is spotted as the investigating officer (he spots the princess and falls in love with her, making him ideal to track her down), and the bad guys alternately try to kill him and try to kidnap him. There are a few goofy scenes of Gambrelli bumbling about in front of the bad guys, most notably in a scene where he pretends to be a doctor, and ends up drinking a bottle of ether while Robert Davi beats him up. That scene is pretty funny. Of note: Since the Pink Panther movies can be seen as a comedic mirror of the James Bond movies, Robert Davi is the first actor (apart from David Niven) to have appeared in both series; he was also the bad guy in Licence to Kill.

The princess herself is no shrinking violet, as she has a few capable fight scenes in her underwear, and a final showdown with Jennifer Edwards, who is just as strong and as capable as any of the men. She's like Leslie Ash's character from Curse, but more appealing and interesting. There is also a plot concerning the King of Lugash, his military advisor, and the advisor's mistress, but the plot machinations are hard to keep up with. Needless to say, the film's surprisingly action-centric finale takes place in Lugash. What happens there is hardly of consequence, and we only need to note that Gambrelli is successful. Oh yes, along the way, Maria reveals to Gambrelli who his father is, and he begins going by Clouseau Jr. If “franchise” was what the filmmakers had in mind, they should have left him Gambrelli.

Pink Panther 9 Cato

What else? Oh yes, Cato (Burt Kwouk) also appears in this film, but only briefly. Henry Mancini's cool iconic Pink Panther theme is performed over the credits by Bobby McFerrin.

Like I said, Son of the Pink Panther was a critical and box office flop, which is a pity because it really was a good idea. I don't know if further films with Benigni would have been tolerable (he can be a bit grating in how precious he is), but I would have rather seen him than Ted Wass. I'm not sure if Blake Edwards was trying to wash his hands of the series by 1993, attempting to give a send-off to his famous movies with a new character, or if Son's failure disappointed him enough to simply turn his back altogether. Either way, Edwards would not have a hand in the series again. Indeed, his only other work would be a TV version of his famed 1982 musical Victor/Victoria, made in 1995. Edwards died in2010 at the age of 88. To Edwards I say the following: Good show!

Wait another 13 years, and see the rise of a remake trend. That will lead to…